Don Young’s Outside backers vote for him with their money
Some of the most consistent financial benefactors of Rep. Don Young have never had the chance to cast a ballot for him.
They can’t. They don’t live in Alaska. But they vote with their money.
The Chouest family in Louisiana has been a top contributor to Young for more than a decade, now close to surpassing the $231,620 Young collected from Bill Allen and others associated with Veco until it collapsed during the Alaska political corruption scandal.
The family controls numerous entities that deal with shipping and marine cargo. Its members have given Young $220,300 over the years, according to OpenSecrets.org, an organization that helps anyone follow the money in U.S politics.
Edison Chouest, a firm named for the family patriarch who died in 2008, now has a contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. for oil tanker escorts in Valdez. It operates more than 200 vessels worldwide, one of which is an icebreaker built for Arctic service that it has tried to get the U.S. Coast Guard to lease.
Individuals associated with Edison Chouest have given $32,400 during this election season to Young, the most of any entity, according to OpenSecrets.org.
He has received $5,400 each from Ross Chouest, Casey Chouest, Dionne Austin Chouest, Gary Chouest, Carolyn Chouest, and $2,700 each from Dino Chouest and Damon Chouest.
Gary, Ross, Carolyn, Dino, Dionne, Damon and Casey have also given generously to Young in past campaigns. In addition, the family largely bankrolled the Don Young Legal Expense Trust to help him pay for lawyers when he was in trouble.
In late 2010 or early 2011, Gary Chouest, head of the family business, talked to Young on the phone, offering to raise funds for Young’s legal bills from his various family-owned companies, according to a House ethics investigation.
In January 2011, at a fundraiser in Texas, Gary handed an envelope to Young that contained a dozen $5,000 checks. The checks were from 12 family companies, all of them at 16201 East Main St. in Galliano, LA.
In the ethics investigation that followed, the key issue was whether separate checks totaling $60,000 were a way to surpass the $5,000 per company annual limit on such donations.
Young later told the Office of Congressional Ethics that he did not open the envelope and he did not know how much was in it. He said he sent it directly to the person handling his trust. Young’s chief of staff at the time said he gave her the envelope and she forwarded it to the trustee.
“Representative Young has known the Chouest family of Louisiana for approximately ten years, and he considers members of the family, including Gary Chouest, to be good friends,” the committee said in its report. “Over the course of their relationship, Representative Young and Gary Chouest have attended a number of social events together, including dinners and fishing events.”
At some point, Young became aware that the envelope contained $60,000, according to the ethics committee report, and he called Gary Chouest to thank him.
The ethics committee concluded that since the Chouest companies were separate legal entities, the $60,000 did not violate the $5,000 limit. But it said the identical ownership of the 12 companies “challenges the principles of the contribution limits” and tightened the rules as on Jan. 1, 2012.
Jump ahead four-and-a-half years to July 12, 2016, when Young lobbied in a transportation subcommittee meeting to get the U.S. Coast Guard to put an Edison Chouest ship to use in the Arctic.
“I’ll get the elephant out in the room, in a sense,” Young said during a hearing covered by Liz Ruskin, the Washington, D.C. reporter for Alaska Public Media.
No one mentioned the name of the ship or the name of the company, but there was no doubt about the identity of the elephant.
It was the $200-million Aiviq, a ship built by Edison Chouest that Shell was going to use in icy waters. In 2011, Gary Chouest told the Houston Chronicle it would be the “world’s largest and most powerful anchor-handling ice breaker.”
Its main job for Shell was to move anchors for drilling rigs. But the 324-foot Aiviq lost all four of its engines while towing the Kulluk in late 2012 near Kodiak when seawater got into the fuel supply. The Kulluk ended up on the rocks.
Shell later gave up on its Arctic leases entirely after hitting a dry hole and the icebreaker was left without a mission. It wasn’t long before the company was lobbying the Coast Guard for a contract.
Young said it was a ship with “tremendous capability of icebreaking power” and it was “American-built, American-manned, American-maintained.” It would be retrofitted in 12 or 18 months, he said.
“Would you be interested in that, admiral, if that was to take place?” Young said to Adm. Charles Michel. “I know you’ve got the proposal on your desk, by the way. It’s already been laid on your desk and it’s an automatic no. Why?”
The commandant of the Coast Guard had inspected the ship and found it was not suitable for military service without a big overhaul and that it would be expected to do more than break the ice.
“Sir, our current opinion is that ship is not suitable for military service without substantial refit,” said Michel.
“See, and that is what I call, Mr. Chairman, a bullshit answer. Military service,” Young said.
Young was interrupted by Chairman Duncan Hunter of California, another prime recipient of contributions from Edison Chouest. For several minutes Hunter continued to press Michel on why the Coast Guard could not accept a “non-military vessel.”
Hunter, now under indictment for improperly using campaign funds, continued to press the Coast Guard to lease or buy the Aiviq. A year ago he proposed that the government spend $5 million to pay for sea trials on a leased vessel.
In August, the San Diego Union Tribune said Edison Chouest had donated $25,000 to his new legal defense fund.
Meanwhile, a Canadian company has been trying to get the Canadian Coast Guard to convert the Aiviq for use in its fleet.